China on edge after world's biggest Covid call made: 'Escape the shackles'

It's a decision some feared would never come.

Yet, without official confirmation or reference to the divisive strategy, it appears China's zero-Covid stance is no longer.

President Xi Jinping's resolve had been unwavering, yet in the face of surging infection and unprecedented social unrest, his goal to defeat the virus has quickly become untenable.

On Wednesday, a list of 10 eased measures was announced, including the introduction of home quarantine for mild and asymptomatic cases and the ability to enter public places without proof of a negative test.

China insists its latest easing has not been influenced by recent protests.

People wearing face masks wait at a traffic light to cross a street, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks continue in Shanghai, China, December 7, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song
People wearing face masks wait at a traffic light to cross a street, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks continue in Shanghai, China, December 7, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song

And while many enjoyed their new freedoms from Thursday, there was a building sense of unease as people feared the impacts of a surging wave of Covid-19 never seen before across the vast country.

"I know Covid is not so 'horrifying' now, but it is still contagious and will hurt," said one post on the Weibo platform. "The fear brought to our heart cannot be easily dissipated."

"Too many positives!" said another Weibo user.

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China 'escaping Covid's shackles'

Former Global Times editor-in-chief and media personality Hu Xijin said the move would allow the country to "return to normal life".

"It is a reflection of the whole country’s determination to escape the shackles of Covid-19," he said.

"The cage of the epidemic is being shattered, and the appearance of Chinese society will change every week."

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And while significant controls are still in place, the new rules are a far cry from the draconian measures that has seen endless communities locked down amid efforts to eradicate the virus.

Shanghai, which endured one of the country's longest and harshest lockdowns, on Thursday dropped the need for Covid tests to enter restaurants or entertainment venues.

There has been no mention of China's zero-Covid policy in recent announcements, raising suspicions that the term is becoming defunct.

Top officials have also been softening their tone on the dangers posed by the virus.

But, while adopting the new more relaxed controls, some cities urged residents to remain vigilant.

Large scale outbreak just weeks away

Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University, told Yahoo News Australia last month it was quite clear China could not hold back the Omicron wave much longer.

"They're holding back a tide with a sieve now, not a dam," she said.

Prof Bennett said there was a level of secrecy regarding the progression of China's vaccine development and it was unclear if advancements had been made, with its vaccine once seen as inferior to Western-developed ones – a possible explanation for Beijing's previous reluctance to open up.

Some analysts and medical experts say China is ill-prepared for a major surge in infections, partly due to low vaccination rates among the vulnerable and its fragile healthcare system.

Testing is being rolled back across China as part of new measures introduced. Source: Reuters
Testing is being rolled back across China as part of new measures introduced. Source: Reuters

Feng Zijian, a former official in China's Center for Disease Control, told the China Youth Daily that up to 60 per cent of China's population could be infected in the first large-scale wave before stabilising.

"Ultimately, around 80 per cent to 90 per cent of people will be infected," he said.

China's current seven-day average sits at about 30,000 cases a day.

The country will probably face a large-scale outbreak in the next one to two months, state-owned magazine China Newsweek reported on Thursday, citing health experts.

China's current tally of 5,235 COVID-related deaths is a tiny fraction of its population of 1.4 billion, and extremely low by global standards. Some experts have warned that toll could rise above 1.5 million if the exit is too hasty.

But, even with the dangers, for many there is an acceptance that life must go on.

"It's impossible to kill this virus completely, maybe just live with it and hope it will evolve into flu," said Yan, a 22-year-old unemployed Beijing resident, who said he hoped a further opening up of China's economy would help him find a job.

With Reuters

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